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A view from the Capitol dome is seen as thousands rally inside of the State Capitol and jam the doors leading to the Senate in Madison, Wisconsin, Thursday, February 17, 2011. The crowd grows larger each day to protest Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill.

Tom Lynn, McClatchy Tribune

Madison protests grow, and Senate Democrats dash

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON
  • Star Tribune
  • February 18, 2011 - 12:31 PM

MADISON, WIS. - Adam Grabski rarely comes to the Wisconsin State Capitol, but fear dragged him there Thursday.

Grabski stood deep among thousands of protesters who jammed the Capitol plaza demanding Republican Gov. Scott Walker abandon a sweeping budget bill that targets public employee unions.

A union mechanic at Kraft Foods, Grabski fears that his livelihood will soon be in peril if the new governor prevails.

"If the state workers go, we are all next," said Grabski, who was tired, tearful and in need of a shave. "This is a defining moment, a defining issue for all of us. They are at war with the middle class."

Madison has become the epicenter of a showdown between a feisty new Republican governor and the powerful public employee unions and their Democratic allies.

In a dramatic gesture Thursday, 14 Democratic state senators blocked a vote on the bill by refusing to show up and fleeing the state. But the battle promises to rage Friday, as GOP legislative leaders hope to end the stalemate and more protesters, including a contingent of Minnesota union members, crowd the Capitol.

The same fiery forces also are fueling simmering struggles in cash-strapped states throughout the nation, including Minnesota. Although the debates in St. Paul have been more muted, the two sides are just as divided.

Walker sparked the Wisconsin rebellion by championing a bill that would require public employees to pay half their pension costs and 12 percent of their health insurance premiums.

Collective bargaining would be eliminated for public hospital and clinic employees, public university faculty members and for childcare and home health workers.

For most other public employees, collective bargaining would be limited to base pay only. Wage increases by law would be capped at the Consumer Price Index unless approved by referendum.

Contracts would be limited to one year. Unions would have to take annual votes by secret ballot to maintain certification. Members would not be required to pay dues and employers would be barred from collecting dues. State employees could be fired three days of absence without approval or for participating in a strike or work slow down if the governor has declared a state of emergency.

Police and firefighters wouldn't be covered by the measure.

Walker, who took office last month, called on the Democrats to return to the Capitol and finish their work. Police were ordered to search for the lawmakers and bring them back to Madison.

"Their actions, by leaving the state and hiding from voting, are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent," Walker said.

The 14 Democrats turned out to be holed up at a Best Western in Rockford, Ill., where, they said, Wisconsin law enforcement had no jurisdiction. They said they later dispersed, but remained outside the state.

"The plan is to try and slow this down because it's an extreme piece of legislation that's tearing this state apart," state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a telephone interview.

Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve -- $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

"I think the taxpayers will support this idea," Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said.

Protests inside and outside

In exchange for bearing more costs and losing bargaining leverage, public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs. Walker has threatened to order layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass. Republicans hold a 19-14 advantage in Senate but need at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place.

Madison schools remained closed for the second day in a row Thursday, after teachers called in absent by the thousands. Hudson, Wis., schools will be closed Friday, according to the district's website, because of "unusually high teacher absences and the lack of qualified teacher substitutes." College students walked out of their classrooms to join the protests.

As a cool mist blew through the Capitol grounds, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, launched into a gravel-throated speech that left the crowd in a state of frenzy.

"We may be on our heels," he roared. "But we are going to fight back and prevail."

The protesters erupted as Schaitberger joined a marching band procession and offered high-fives and handshakes to protesters.

Inside the Capitol, the protest went long into the night and the warm building began to smell like a locker room. Dozens of Wisconsin State Patrol officers stood guard by the two chambers, stone-faced, as protesters mocked their chartreuse earplugs. Chants echoed through megaphones and beating drums gave the building an anxious heartbeat.

Exhausted protesters, many of whom had camped out at the Capitol for days, seemed to grow more energized as the night wore on.

Trina Sines is a payroll and benefits specialist at the University of Wisconsin. While not in the union, she believes people should have the right to organize. "Flatly, he is trying to take away people's rights -- and under the guise of a budget problem he created," she said. "He just shouldn't be allowed to do that."

The battle lines between unions and governing Republicans are rapidly becoming a national issue. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed support for Wisconsin teachers.

But Walker advised Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who faces smaller but similar protests by union leaders in his own state, "Don't blink."

In an interview with WTMJ-TV, President Obama said Walker's proposal may have gone beyond what was needed to balance the budget. "Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama said. "I think everybody's got to make some adjustments, but I think it's also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens."

In Minnesota, AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson called the Wisconsin governor's proposal "clearly a national attack on the rights of all working people. Measures attacking basic workers' rights have been introduced in several states, including Minnesota." Working people, she said, "will not sit idle while our rights are taken away." The union, which represents more than 30,000 workers across the state, is urging members to join the protest in Madison on Friday.

At a late afternoon news conference Thursday, Walker expressed no concern about the growing throngs.

Protesters seemed content to have the Democrats stay away while their drumbeat grew louder. "We'll be here for as long as it takes," said Blake Draper, a telecommunications worker. "We're only getting stronger and our message is becoming clearer."

Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen Berger, Mike Kaszuba and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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